I’ve been reading about this horrible tainted formula in China. So sad and awful. And then I realized, wait, isn’t MELAMINE, the stuff these babies are being poisoned by, the same stuff MY babies are eating their meals of off every single day?? Are melamine plates safe? – please say yes!
Poor plastics. So promising in 1967, so problematic in 2008. And just when you think you’ve got the good and bad ones sorted out, a new controversy breaks. But before you throw out the melamine with the polycarbonate, let’s start with a little science. Melamine is a chemical compound made mostly of nitrogen. The cute, colorful plates you eat off of are made of melamine resin, a polymer created from a combination of melamine and formaldehyde.
The words formaldehyde and food do not sound good together. But the thing about plastics is that it’s not just the raw ingredients that matter. It’s how inert or active the chemicals are, the stability of the resulting compounds, and the factors that make them unstable (and thus leach chemicals into the world around them). Heat, for example, triggers chemical activity. This is why you may have heard warnings about putting plastic in the microwave, or even the dishwasher. Depending on the plastic, even hot water can cause leaching.
The ambient temperature that causes molecular change is unique to each material. Melamine resin happens to be a pretty stable compound, as these things go. Melamine itself has a high melting point: around 662° Farenheit. Compare this to the melting points of Bisphenol A and polyethylene (200-300° F, depending) and PVC (178°). We’re not scientists – just researching this response has required the use of synapses that have lain dormant since eleventh grade.
Our first conclusion from this data was that melamine plates were unlikely to leach chemicals unless they were put into a pottery kiln. But further investigations were inconclusive. If melamine resin is so stable, why are we advised not to put it in the microwave? And why does it warp in the dishwasher? And what about that formaldehyde business? Little published research seems to exist on the risks. We did find one mention of a study that found melamine molecules in beverages that had migrated from the plastic they’d been served in. Ew.
It’s not entirely clear what kind of evil shenanigans/gross negligence might be behind the Chinese crisis. But it seems like it had nothing to do with leaching. The leading theory suggests that melamine was added to the cows’ food to up the protein readings of the resulting dairy products. This same protein impersonation was behind the pet food poisoning scandal that emerged from China last year.
Honestly, who knows what mystery lurks in the chemicals we’re exposed to day in and day out. A study could come out tomorrow saying that melamine plates are slowly poisoning us all. Let’s hope not. There are options with fewer unknowns, though they’re not as convenient or cheap as the plastics we’ve come to depend on. Maybe the choices will improve as more questions come up in the future. But we expect we’ll be keeping our melamine plates on the table until something better comes along. Or until our kids can be trusted not to throw the dishware.
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